Types of word meaning in English. Polysemy and its sources.

Generally speaking, meaning can be more or less described as a component of the word through which a concept is communicated, in this way endowing the word with the ability of denoting real objects, qualities, actions and abstract notions. The complex and somewhat mysterious relationships between referent (object, etc. denoted by the word), concept and word are traditionally represented by the following triangle [35]:

Thought or Reference



Symbol Referent

By the "symbol" here is meant the word; thought or reference is concept. The dotted line suggests that there is no immediate relation between word and referent: it is established only through the concept.

On the other hand, there is a hypothesis that concepts can only find their realisation through words. It seems that thought is dormant till the word wakens it up. It is only when we hear a spoken word or read a printed word that the corresponding concept springs into mind.

The mechanism by which concepts (i. e. mental phenomena) are converted into words (i. e. linguistic phenomena) and the reverse process by which a heard or a printed word is converted into a kind of mental picture are not yet understood or described. Probably that is the reason why the process of communication through words, if one gives it some thought, seems nothing short of a miracle. Isn't it fantastic that the mere vibrations of a speaker's vocal chords should be taken up by a listener's brain and converted into vivid pictures? If magic does exist in the world, then it is truly the magic of human speech; only we are so used to this miracle that we do not realise its almost supernatural qualities.

The branch of linguistics which specialises in the study of meaning is called semantics. As with many terms, the term "semantics" is ambiguous for it can stand, as well, for the expressive aspect of language in general and for the meaning of one particular word in all its varied aspects and nuances (i.e. the semantics of a word = the meaning(s) of a word).

As Mario Pei puts it in The Study of Language, "Semantics is 'language' in its broadest, most inclusive aspect. Sounds, words, grammatical forms, syntactical constructions are the tools of language. Semantics is language's avowed purpose" The meanings of all the utterances of a speech community are said by another leading linguist to include the total experience of that community; arts, science, practical occupations, amusements, personal and family life.

The modern approach to semantics is based on the assumption that the inner form of the word (i. e. its meaning) presents a structure which is called the semantic structure of the word.

Yet, before going deeper into this problem, it is necessary to make a brief survey of another semantic phenomenon which is closely connected with it.

Every word has two aspects: the outer aspect (its sound form) and the inner aspect (its meaning) . Sound and meaning do not always constitute a constant unit even in the same language. E.g. the word temple may denote a part of a human head and a large church In such cases we have homonyms. One and the same word in different syntactical relations can develop different meanings, e.g. the verb treat in sentences:

a) He treated my words as a joke.

b) The book treats of poetry.

c) They treated me to sweets.

d) He treats his son cruelly.

In all these sentences the verb treat has different meanings and we can speak about polysemy.

On the other hand, one and the same meaning can be expressed by different sound forms, e.g. pilot , and airman, horror and terror. In such cases we have synonyms.

Both the meaning and the sound can develop in the course of time independently. E.g. the Old English /luvian/ is pronounced /l^v / in Modern English. On the other hand, board primariliy means a piece of wood sawn thin It has developed the meanings: a table, a board of a ship, a stage, a council etc.



The lexical meaning of a word is the realization of a notion by means of a definite language system. A word is a language unit, while a notion is a unit of thinking. A notion cannot exict without a word expressing it in the language, but there are words which do not express any notion but have a lexical meaning. Interjections express emotions but not notions, but they have lexical meanings, e.g. Alas! /disappointment/, Oh,my buttons! /surprise/ etc. There are also words which express both, notions and emotions, e.g. girlie, a pig /when used metaphorically/.

The term notion was introduced into lexicology from logics. A notion denotes the reflection in the mind of real objects and phenomena in their relations. Notions, as a rule, are international, especially with the nations of the same cultural level. While meanings can be nationally limited. Grouping of meanings in the semantic structure of a word is determined by the whole system of every language. E.g. the English verb go and its Russian equivalent have some meanings which coincide: to move from place to place, to extend /the road goes to London/, to work /Is your watch going?/. On the other hand, they have different meanings: in Russian we say : , in English we use the verb come in this case. In English we use the verb go in the combinations: to go by bus, to go by train etc. In Russian in these cases we use the verb .

The number of meanings does not correspond to the number of words, neither does the number of notions. Their distribution in relation to words is peculiar in every language. The Russian has two words for the English man: and . In English, however, man cannot be applied to a female person. We say in Russian: . In English we use the word person/ She is a good person/

Development of lexical meanings in any language is influenced by the whole network of ties and relations between words and other aspects of the language.

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